• Marianne Gernetzke, MS, NBC-HWC, A-CFHC

A Route to Health and Wellness: Five Elements to Create and Sustain Healthy Behaviors

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

Are you seeking change in your life to become healthier and/or happier? Are you trying to lose weight? Exercise more? Manage a chronic health condition? We all have health behaviors we could improve upon.

Unfortunately, change is HARD. Really hard.

Even when change is important and our intention is strong, it is common to find that something is holding us back. This can leave us feeling deflated and frustrated and focused on our failures.

The science of behavior change informs us that change is a PROCESS, not an event.

Meaningful and lasting change occurs over time! Change occurs in predictable stages, and requires different events to occur at each stage. It is also normal to take steps backward from time to time. This is not failure, but rather, part of the process.

According to the Stages of Change model, there are six stages of change and the first three stages occur before we are even ready to take action! This is why most New Year’s Resolutions fail: we try to spring into action without first doing the equally important preparation work.

What are some elements that can prepare us for the hard work of change? This article will consider five: information, mindfulness, positivity, authenticity, and truly knowing our final destination.

1. Information Start with a roadmap.

In our age of information, information is often where we start. And we have a great deal of information at our fingertips!

The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion has stated that you can avoid chronic disease by not smoking, eating healthy, getting regular exercise, avoiding too much alcohol, getting enough sleep, getting preventative medical care, and practicing healthy behaviors.

Does this statement surprise you at all? Probably not! That is because health information is everywhere! And if you need to learn additional information, for example, about a healthy Paleo diet, or where the nearest fitness gym is, or how to practice good sleep hygiene, you probably know just where to find that information!

Sometimes an online search is all we need. At other times we might read a book or consult a medical or mental health professional. But either way, you have this covered!

Many of us believe that if we have the right information, we should easily move ahead with behavior change. Not true! Information alone is not enough! If information was sufficient, we could all use Google to become the perfect example of health and wellness!

Taking action too soon -- armed only with information -- is like trying to drive a vehicle with no wheels or with only half a map (and no GPS). So let’s consider some additional change tools.

2. Mindfulness Before we drive anywhere, we first need to release our parking break. But finding the release may take some searching.

Some of the information that you most need in order to prepare for behavior change is unique only to you. For example: Do my symptoms really flare when I eat gluten? Why do I sabotage myself by staying up late binge watching TV? Do I always respond to stress with this destructive pattern of behavior? If only we could directly ask our subconscious for these answers! These may be the answers we truly need -- another vital piece to your roadmap.

Each of us has subconscious patterns of behavior that we learned when we were younger. For example, we may have developed a habit to cope with a childhood situation and continued to use that habit even though it later became self-destructive. Or, in order to make sense of the world or our experiences, we may have internalized beliefs about ourselves or the world that were not, in fact, true.

Many of us operate our lives utilizing these subconscious thoughts and patterns. We go through each day on an “automatic pilot”, sabotaging our best efforts over and over. However, when we practice mindfulness, we can begin to see these patterns and understand ourselves better. With this new understanding, our choices become less automatic and more deliberate. In this way, mindful practices make sustained behavior change more possible, like releasing the brake in our vehicle.

Mindfulness can be practiced formally with various forms of meditation or informally by observing our thoughts and behaviors through each present moment. A health coach can also help with mindfulness by asking powerful questions to bring your attention to thoughts or behaviors you might not be noticing. As you begin to strengthen your self-awareness, you may find that you also have greater compassion and understanding for yourself as well as improved self-control.

3. Connection to the Positive If you are driving on a dangerous road and you attend only to the dangers around you, rather than on the road itself, where might you end up?

Our ancestors had to focus on dangers in order to survive in their wilderness. Even though we no longer live in the wilderness, we tend to think with the same “negativity bias”. This means that most of the time, we tend to imagine the worst and focus on our weaknesses. Meanwhile we dismiss the good things.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, our negativity does not always serve us well. Negative, ruminating thoughts tend to increase stress levels, cause increased anxiety and/or depression, and hurt our physical health too. Becoming mindful of these negative thoughts is a first step, but what happens if we also replace these thoughts with more positive ones?

The field of positive psychology examines the role of positive factors in healthy and flourishing lives. This research tells us that connecting to a more positive point of view is correlated with better physical well-being and improved mental health. Positivity also can help us to become more motivated and confident.

A health coach is trained to apply positive psychology to help you remain within a positive mindset. The coach may ask you to focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want. What is meaningful and important to you? Who in your life will benefit from your behavior change? When in your life do you feel most confident? What do past successes tell you about what you need to do now? How will you celebrate when you succeed? Notice how the energy within you shifts and grows as you consider these questions. This is the power of positivity!

4. Authenticity Utilizing our authentic values/strengths is like filling our tank with fuel.

Each of us, no matter who we are, has authentic values and strengths that come easily and naturally. When we apply these genuine pieces of ourselves in our daily actions, we become more energetic and motivated. When we instead try to live our lives according to the expectations of others, we may find ourselves drained of our life energy.

It is important to consider our deeply-held values when making a change in behavior. If we are unaware that our desired behavior change conflicts with our personal values, we may feel unable to move forward once again.

Consider an example individual who wants to start intermittent fasting. A person who is sold on the benefits of fasting and wants to keep their eating within a window of only 8 hours per day may find themselves in conflict if this means they no longer eat meals with their family or friends in the evening. Examining the importance of social eating times and planning accordingly may help to eliminate barriers to behavior change.

Your personal strengths are another important consideration. Your character strengths, according to the VIA Institute on Character, are the pre-existing patterns of thought, feeling and behavior that you use when you are at your very best. Your strengths come easily to you, are exciting and energizing, and put you on a fast learning curve. Knowing your authentic strengths and how to use them towards your healthy behavior goals may propel you forward!

Many helping professionals, including myself, were trained with a more negative mindset, focusing instead on client weaknesses. However, positive psychology and the science of character strengths tell us that we succeed by using our strengths, not by overcoming our weaknesses!

Robert Biswas Diener, in his book Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching, illustrates this point with the analogy of a sailboat. He points out that it is essential to acknowledge when there is a hole in the boat. It is important to plug that hole – just as it is important to acknowledge and address our personal weaknesses – so the boat will float instead of sink. But when we turn our attention to the sails of the boat – our personal strengths – and direct the sails into the wind, only then will the sailboat finally begin to glide to its destination!

5. Know Where You are Going You can’t get to your destination if you don’t know where you are actually going!

It is essential to create a clear picture of what you want your health and wellness to be like, and how you will recognize when you have actually arrived.

Setting goals is an important part of creating your roadmap. Goals will be more powerful if they are positive, specific, measurable, attainable, reasonable, and time-sensitive. So take some time figuring out the details.

An in-depth exploration of your desired destination may generate a more detailed wellness vision. A vision is different from a goal because it feels more like a vivid dream. Creating a wellness vision requires many of the elements already discussed: visioning involves taking a positive mindset, practicing mindfulness and knowing your authentic self, and then creating situations where you are utilizing your strengths to live your best life. The more clear you can create your vision, the more energy and motivation you will have to move towards it.

What would you include in your vision of health and wellness?

Want to learn more about the components of behavior change? Would you consider hiring a health coach to help you?

Health coaches are trained to apply evidence-based information, positive psychology, the science of character strengths, mindfulness, powerful questions, and wellness visioning to help you make the changes you need to reach your health and wellness goals. The health coach will partner with you to utilize your expertise on your life. Their job is to empower you!

Would you like to learn more about working with a health coach? Contact me to request a free, no-obligation discovery session by phone.

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